designs vs. reality ?

Here’s a question for anyone in Transportation Design (or anyone with an opinion)-

Why is it that there seem to be so many great car designers, but so many poorly designed cars in the market?

I have seen a lot of car designers’ portfolio and sketches (, various portfolio, in Auto&Design magazine…), and almost all look amazing. At least from a sketching and rendering perspective (no pun intended), there seems to be a lot of great talent out there.

In reality, however, (in my opinion), I think that the majority of cars released by most manufacturers are crap. (in design appeal at least, im not talking about performance or durability, which is another issue)

What’s going on? Why this huge imbalance between design ability and real life outcome?

I have rarely seen this in other industries. Of course there are always bad designs, and unskilled talent in any industry, but the majority of car designers I have ever seen or worked with seem very talented.

To me, (as someone always jealous of those great car design sketching abilities), I suggest that perhaps it is an issue of too much “mastubatory design rendering” and not enough real thinking.

Sure, those flash renderings and sketches look great. But as I have seen in Auto&Design many times, a good illustrator/designer can render up a very appealing presentation of what is still an ugly car. So many terrible Fiat concepts come to mind…



the reason is that cars are a committee process. to many non designers have a say in the final product, and that is including john Q public!

product development, regardless of field (consumer electronics, trans, housewares, etc) is all a “committee process”.

i think a relevant point to made here is the fact that most designers are constantly pursuing the next best way to do something. problem finding and problem solving. is it possible that transportation designers arent doing this?

i’m not so certain that most transportation designer should have that title… maybe combustion engine stylist is better.

I think that people forget that developing an automobile is not an easy thing. My typical lighting projects involve 20 to 30 parts and tooling of $3000. A car has 10,000+ parts and a development budget of $30 million +. The risks are huge in automobiles, therefore, there are far less taken.

A second factor is the production process. Many transportation designers (all?) ignore production realities in their gorgeous sketches. Therefore, it is difficult to compare the drawing with the result.

For my money, I would say there is something to your theory. The issue with the risks and group decisions are also present in other industries, but somehow in car design it seems lke a case of “thebetter the sketch the easier to hide a crap concept”…

still, of course they do life sized clay models and the like, so…?

I agree R, the amount of cars I could see myself in is very small…

but, Some designers seem to do very little sketching, like Simon Cox (Cadillac Cien and Chevy Nomad concept). Even the sketches of the TT by Freeman Thomas seemed minimal, and more concerned with packaging and proportions. I think there are car designers that are more focused on the end product than the sketch (as it should be) but they are few and far between. I think that is partially because there are many more designers than production designs, and many feel, to quote a friend in the auto industry, that they are “wallpaper designers”, drawing pretty pictures that never see the light of day. If this is true, and the sketch is your final product in a way, its no surprise that everything goes out the window to make a hot drawing… and your probably screwed when you actually have to design a production car and your process is all going the wrong way.

ha, good point about the number of designers compared to the number of cars released…

I figure then that designing stuff that never happens and rendering all day would either be the best job in the world or the most frustrating depending on your perspective! :wink:


Exactly. And they usually don’t just ignore production realities, but basic functional realities as well. Have you ever noticed that every concept car sketch you ever see shows the car on 25" wheels with 1/4" tall tire sidewalls and zero wheel arch clearance? And usually no place for an engine or license plates, no bumpers, etc. Most car designers are in the business of making drawings, not cars.

I think an interesting aspect of this issue is the education of transportation designers.

Learning to proportion (sketch, render, model) vehicles easily can take the full 4 years of an undergraduate education. In addition, learning to solve problems also takes time. There seems to me a direct conflict between the amount of time spent mastering visualization and solving user’s problems. I’ve experienced this myself, and its also visible in the school shows on Car Design News.

In my opinion, the best thinking regularly comes from the masters program at RCA. The best looking sketches usually come from other schools.

Are styling and problem solving mutually exclusive? Probably not, but it often times seems like they fight for a designer’s attention.

There are more designers than jobs in this field. Based on this, I can’t fault students for wanting to sell their concepts as well as possible.

quite simply car designers are taught to draw an emotion. The lines of a car sketch are all a result of key words thought up in the design process. I’m not an expert, but from what i understand, the sketch gets hand of to engineers and so on.

I supposed that there are too many “form monsters” in the car industry and not enough that actually see a product thru the development stage. They are too busy sketching the next big line. Please correct me if i’m wrong?

I think that’s part of the public’s frustration with concept cars. It’s very rare for a car to go directly from concept to production with very few modifications; the original Corvette was one of the first to do so, and more recently the Mercedes SLK and new Mustang have done the same.

Either we need designers who are more in tune with reality, or engineers who are more innovative than we’ve got, or boards of directors that are willing to take a damn chance on the market for a change.

It’s proven again and again, the cars that take a chance and deviate enough – the ones that really polarize opinion, like the Aztek or the Crossfire or the PT Cruiser – do better than the next boring midsize sedan, and draw attention to the company.

And yet we still get a million mini-SUVs and “sporty” hatchbacks and overgrown monster-roadsters based on sedan platforms; nothing truly pretty or unique.

This is a touchy subject (especially amongst car designers themsleves). However, my two pence worth.

The way I see it car design involves a much wider scope of “concerned parties” than almost any other product on the market. Just one aspect of this has been spoken of already. A typical car involves many many hundreds, or even thousands of components. Think of how many suppliers are therefore involved in the process! Then you have marketing people, engineers, ergonomists, bean counters etc. etc. Of course, product design has these people as well…but as has already been mentioned, the stakes and costs (especially of failure) are exceptionally high in the car industry. This means that a car designer has a very large battle on his hands if he wants his dream sketch to become reality.

Having said that, the complaint here is that there are a lot of funky sketches out their that never see the light of day. Alll we get is dulled down boring reality. Have you ever stopped to think what you would get if a designer did start his first sketches drawing what he knew production reality would be. The creative process demands that you explore ideas and thoughts that you know cant be reality. This is where inspiration, and “spark” come from. It is these drawings you see in peoples folios and in show cars. Potential employers want to see that you can push the boundaries and come up with ideas that nobody has ever thought of before. These things are difficult to teach, that is why they are important to show. Most people can be taught the next part which is technical skills and knowledge required to make the reality as close to this as possible.

When it comes to whether a company wants to persue these new ideas and trends we are in a different topic. Think of the outcry when BMW changed their styling. Or think of the love hate relationship people have with the new Beetle. Of course it is a risk when doing something new, and generally (with the perhaps exception of the design director) it is not in designs hands whether the company follow these routes.

Finally I should mention that I currently work in the design department of a truck manufacturer (european meaning…not american…think big rigs). Here a designer HAS to have a good ability in problem solving. Our products are sold far more on their ability to do their job, than their “fashion” or “styling” credentials. Regardless of this however, when we start a new project our sketches are as out there and “blue sky” as anything the car guys do (i have worked in car studios also).

Whew, I like this topic!